'Do not be fooled:' Groups say panel probing drug war deaths 'damage control'

Human rights groups are not sold with the Duterte administration's creation of a panel to reinvestigate 5,655 deaths in police drug war operations.

The Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice), a consortium of local groups, said it appeared to be "damage control to save its international reputation."

"The pledges and comments though now delivered in more sober and studied tones appear to be damage control to save its international reputation, pre-empt any further concrete and decisive international opportunities or mechanisms for accountability," EcuVoice said in a statement.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Tuesday, June 30, that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will be leading an inter-agency panel that will reinvestigate the 5,655 deaths, assist families of victims, and assess if charges need to be filed against policemen.

"At a time when the Philippines needs a serious impartial investigation into 'drug war' killings, the panel is nothing more than a ruse to shield the country from international scrutiny," said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for Asia of international group Human Rights Watch.

In a message to reporters on Wednesday, July 1, Guevarra said he hopes these groups "credit some people in the Philippine government with good faith."

Guevarra said it himself – the panel and its engagement with the independent Commission on Human Rights (CHR) means there should be no need for the International Criminal Court (ICC). (READ: U.N. report: Documents suggest PH police planted guns in drug war ops)

"The continued, unhampered functioning of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights underpins our strong position against calls for an independent investigative mechanism including the one made before the International Criminal Court (ICC) from which we have withdrawn," Guevarra told the UNHRC.

Robertson noted the timing of the announcement of the panel, which coincides with a looming announcement of the ICC on where it would take its examination of the Philippines next.

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will decide this year whether or not to open a formal investigation into the Philippines. Bensouda is currently at the preliminary examination phase, where she must establish jurisdiction. There is jurisdiction if she determines that the Philippines is unable or unwilling to prosecute the alleged crimes.

"It’s also a naked attempt to discourage the Human Rights Council from starting an independent, international investigation into the “drug war” killings and related violations as recommended by the UN high commissioner and 23 UN human rights experts," said Robertson.

The panel started work only in February 2020, when the government has known as early as October 2018 that there were at the time 5,000 deaths in police operations.

A Rappler analysis in January 2019 also showed that systemic gaps in the prosecutorial and investigative systems left thousands of killings unsolved. Part of the gap was because police said the 5,000 deaths in their own operations enjoyed presumption of regularity.

'Do not be fooled'

Robertson said: "Countries at the Human Rights Council should not be fooled."

At the interactive dialogue during Wednesday's session at the UNHRC, 22 countries spoke in support of the Philippine government, which is resisting accusations that there is impunity in the Philippines.

Of those 22 countries, only 4 were voting members of the UNHRC – Bahrain, Japan, Indonesia and Venezuela. The rest, like China and Russia, were non voting members.

There were 15 countries who supported the findings of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that there is no rule of law and due process in Duterte's drug war.

Of those 15 countries, 3 were voting members like Australia, Austria and Netherlands.

"We are heartened by the wide acknowledgement we heard today from States of our good governance agenda and national accountability efforts, as well as encouragement for constructive ways forward," Guevarra said in his concluding statement. 

"This manifests the desire of the majority to support effective human rights mechanisms, and a Council that bases its discussions and actions on facts and promotes genuine dialogue with concerned countries," added Guevarra.

Filipino lawyer Edre Olalia, transitional president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), said the panel was a move to deflect and appease.

"Deflection – to take off the heat from Philippine responsibility. Appeasement – to calm down frustration and disappointment [over] impunity, unresponsiveness, inadequacy and protracted remedies," said Olalia.

Robertson said the panel is also "deeply flawed."

"It will be led by the Department of Justice and will have among its members the very agencies – notably the police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency –directly implicated in the drug war," said Robertson.

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete earlier told reporters the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), which supervises the police, will be part of the decision-making unit of the panel.

"The DILG is there because any recommendation relating to administrative (disciplinary) investigations will be implemented by it internally," said Perete. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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